Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
Back in 1973, Chris Baca, then 24 and armed with a freshly earned master’s degree from the University of New Mexico, took a job heading a relatively new nonprofit social services agency – Youth Development Inc., or YDI.
“I had an undergraduate degree in economics and had just received my master’s in public administration. I figured I’ll stay for two years, get some experience and move on to bigger and better things.”
On June 30, Baca, now 65, will retire after nearly 41 years as president and chief executive officer of YDI. He didn’t leave for something bigger and better; instead, he transformed YDI into a regional service delivery organization with programs in nine counties.
Debra Baca, no relation, currently YDI’s vice president for early childhood education, has been named by the YDI board as the interim president and CEO. She has been with the nonprofit for 30 years.
The organization was founded in 1971 by a group of South Valley community activists who wanted to start a “drop-in center” for kids, essentially an after-school program, Baca said. Later, YDI incorporated a shelter for runaway kids, and a program to counsel kids who were on probation.
At the time Baca took over, eight employees were overseeing those three programs, which served about 200 kids. The programs were funded with about $200,000 in grants from the county, the federal government and the U.S. Department of Justice, he said.
Today, YDI has nearly 55 programs, serving 17,000 people, employs 500, and has an annual budget of about $23 million, provided by grants from the city, county, state and federal governments, philanthropic foundations and private donations.
“Our original mission was to provide a safe place for kids to come after school, a place where the kids of working parents or uninvolved parents could engage with adults who were interested in their well-being,” Baca said.
It was an admittedly simplistic approach to dealing with what appeared to be a clear-cut community need. “It became more complicated and we grew as we began to see kids with more deeply rooted issues that we had to respond to, and in some cases without money to do the programs. We had no choice.”
For example, when gangs began to gain traction in the 1970s-80s, young people were increasingly being recruited as gun-toting foot soldiers in a street war funded by drug money. In response, Baca said, “YDI was one of the first organizations to fight back with a gang intervention program.”
Or when young people took to the streets, defacing public and private property with cans of spray paint, some of it gang-related, YDI offered a program to reduce graffiti by offering more creative outlets through painting, sculpture, dance, music, poetry and film production.
“Some of the first mural art was done through our program, and it was not an accepted art form at the time,” he said.
Baca has not been without his critics, among them former City Councilor Michael Cadigan, who in 2009 questioned whether the city was getting a good return on its social service contracts, and who took issue with Baca’s yearly salary.
Baca earns about $130,000 a year as head of YDI and another $150,000 a year as director of YES Housing Inc., a nonprofit that was spun off from YDI and which revitalizes homes and buildings as affordable housing for low-income residents.
Baca has no “golden parachute” retirement package from either organization (he will keep working at YES Housing for another three years). He does have a 403(b) from both, similar to a 401(k) in the private sector, which gives him a dollar-for-dollar match up to 6 percent of his annual salary. He will also get Social Security benefits, he said.
Cadigan proposed a bill to prohibit the city from contracting with nonprofits that spend 20 percent or more of their money on administrative costs. The attempt was unsuccessful, but Baca and YDI didn’t oppose it. “We’re way below that, like 10 percent, so it was never an issue for us,” he said.
He noted that nonprofit salaries have escalated since about 2000, and back in 2009, when the issue became contentious, a survey conducted by the New Mexico Business Weekly showed that the top 20 nonprofit executives in New Mexico made between $300,000 and $900,000 a year.
“In the private sector, people who take on more challenges and address them in creative ways are praised, but in the private nonprofit sector you’re damned,” Baca said. “That’s changing as nonprofits are being asked more often to be entrepreneurial and creative and provide services funded through their own initiatives, rather than by government contracts or grants.”
Another criticism leveled over the years is alleged nepotism. One of his sons directs a YDI digital film-making program, and the other is a development associate for YES Housing. “They are both way down the food chain, and are not in management,” Baca said.
Despite the criticisms, Baca and YDI have mostly enjoyed widespread support, including political support.
Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, said he came to YDI when he was in high school and the organization helped him get a job through its summer employment program. “I ended up keeping the job for a full year, and then YDI helped me get a scholarship to attend UNM.”
Padilla became a youth member of the YDI board of directors and later an adult board member. Padilla, who spent time in foster care as a child, called Baca a mentor.
“I grew up in the South Valley, where YDI got started. Chris Baca saw needs in the community a long time ago and made it his life’s work to fill those needs.”
House Majority Whip Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said Baca built YDI “from literally nothing except his own passion for the community and his creative skills.” He noted that “the tediousness of day-to-day organizing is so difficult that most people choose not to do it or are unsuccessful at it.”
Because of those organizational abilities, Maestas said, YDI will continue to survive and thrive even after Baca retires. “The contributions he and YDI made to Albuquerque are incalculable. He really made a difference.”
Baca said he occasionally hears that affirmation when people approach him as he goes about his daily business. They remind him they were on the verge of dropping out of school, were latchkey kids, associated with gangs, battled homelessness or suffered depression.
“They tell me how YDI saved them and now they are productive, successful and happy. I know we didn’t change the world,” Baca said, “but we did change the world for them.”
Now Baca is changing his own world with retirement. “I think 65 is a good age to slow down while I still have some spring left in my step and can spend time with my family,” particularly his 4-year-old grandson who just discovered the joys of T-ball, he said, and his wife of 38 years, Jeanette, a retired PNM accountant.
“I saw how fast time went when I was raising my own kids. You don’t get any do-overs.”
He’s also looking forward to more time for reading, writing poetry and short stories, gardening and playing golf.
“I started playing pretty late in life, maybe 10 years ago,” he said. “I took lessons from an 82-year-old golf pro, and I was just horrible. He gave me good advice. He told me don’t get worked up about it – only the first 20 years are hard.”